Women, how many cows are you worth? Men, how many cows would you be willing to pay as a dowry for your wife? Two? Three? How about forty? How many of your wife’s extended family members would you be willing to support? My last day in Kenya, I was invited to have tea with the directors, chairmen, and head staff of the Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya (APDK). They invited me to hear about my accomplishments during the week, what I hoped to do with the information and media I had obtained, a reflection of my visit, and my personal future plans. The issue of gender arose as we spoke about my desire to become a surgeon. Surprisingly, the differences in the role of women in East Africa versus in the United States turned out to be mainly based around the concept of dowries.
Webster defines a dowry as “the money, goods, or estate that a woman brings to her husband in marriage.” A “dower” or “mahr,” on the other hand, is what the groom promises to give to the bride should she be widowed. To make matters even more confusing, money or goods a groom pays to the bride’s parents in exchange for her hand in marriage is technically the “bride price.” The tea conversation was technically based around “bride price,” but this was referred to as the “dowry,” and the thought of the woman’s family paying was inconceivable.
To many of us at MIT, especially our generation that grew up in the United States, the concept of a dowry is almost obsolete. It is often deemed old-fashioned and related to arranged marriage and the renaissance period. However, in some areas and cultures, it is alive and thriving still today. I was able to get both a Kenyan and British perspective, as the national chairman of APDK is British while the other staff members are Kenyan. They informed me that in both countries, it is custom for the man to pay his wife’s family a dowry.
In Kenya, this dowry often continues for the rest of their lives and the responsibility of supporting the woman’s extended family, should they need to be supported, lies in the man’s hands. The dowry (often livestock and/or monetary) serves as a promise and a type of contract. When I explained that the concept of a dowry was almost extinct among my community in the United States, both the women and men in the room were aghast. They argued that a dowry was beneficial as it bonded families together, making both the woman and man more faithful to the marriage due to the relationship being an economic investment. So much relied on the marriage that divorce was unthinkable and almost obsolete. They blamed the lack of dowries as one cause for the increase of failed marriages in modern societies.
The battle of the sexes resumed when it came to details of the dowry. The women in the room argued that dowries for wives made the wives appear as purchasable property in the men’s eyes. They argued that the woman’s family should pay the dowry to the man. This was an interesting view because in Korea, the woman’s family often pays a dowry, and I’ve heard complaints of the women feeling depreciated because they feel that it indicates the male needs to receive something to take them; they, themselves, are not worthy enough, and they are a burden to both their husband and their fathers.
In the end, it seems that there is no perfect solution. A lot of the issue is dependent on how the parties involved choose to interpret the dowry. You can choose to think of it as a price that you are paying for a woman that has been objectified or deemed not worthy on her own. On the other hand, you can think of it as a gift, promise of commitment, or acknowledgment of the joining of families. The danger comes when there is an argument about the extent of the price or gift; when an argument gets heated and one party makes an angry comment using the dowry as an attack. However, it can definitely set the tone for the relationship; not only are the bride and groom involved, but their entire families are entering into the relationship. It can also give just one more reason to try and work things out rather than deciding to divorce. What do you think?